Low-Cost Tag Innovations Accelerating the Path to Scalable RTLS Opportunities

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By Mark Qi | 4Q 2021 | IN-6321

RTLS tags are targeting specific use cases across the market, making them a valued advancement.

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New Devices from Kontakt.io Highlight the Need for Specialized, High-Volume Tags in RTLS


San Francisco-based indoor location specialists Kontact.io have revealed their newest collection of Bluetooth Low Energy (LE) tag devices. The flagship product from the new range is the Nano Tag, a “disposable”, low-cost and wearable tag the size of a dime. Products like the Nano Tag address the need for Real-Time Locating System (RTLS) tags that are built to target the needs of certain market verticals with specific uses. In particular, the Nano Tag addresses the high volume and turnover of tags which are required for applications such as patient tracking in hospitals and visitor tracking for public venues. This requires the cost and size per tag to be kept as low as possible without the need for multi-year battery life or additional connectivity commonly found in personnel tags.

High-Volume Tag Solutions are Helping to Accelerate the Market


RTLS providers, particularly in the medical space, have already identified the need for diversifying their range of RTLS tags. Leading hardware portfolios for medical RTLSs contain tags for staff, patients, and even infants. Compared to staff, patient tags have less strict battery life and durability requirements, and the discarding or recycling of tags helps prevent the spread of infection between clients, which is a concern that has spread to other areas since the emergence of COVID-19. Centrak have provided single-use tags for healthcare as early as 2014, leveraging their Second-Generation Infrared (Gen2IRTM) along with active Radio-Frequency Identification (RFID), to enable each tag can operate for thirty-one days to accommodate typical patient cycles. Outside of healthcare there is scope for the utilization of disposable tags such as in large public venues such as sports arenas, music halls, and conference centers, where it may be infeasible to collect and reuse tags. RTLS tracking of visitors can provide analytics to help manage the flow of traffic, create new interactive media, aid indoor navigation, and allow for targeted advertising.

Kontakt.io’s Nano Tag utilizes advancements in the size and efficiency of low-power electronics to produce the smallest Bluetooth LE tag on the market. The low-power requirements and robust voltage tolerance of designs based on ARM Cortex M0+ allows tags to be supplied with much smaller batteries, and, as such, Silver Oxide batteries previously only suitable for wristwatches and calculators are now making their way into Bluetooth LE devices. Bluetooth LE systems also provide other advantages compared to older active RFID systems: Bluetooth LE operates over a longer physical distance and tags are less expensive than other technologies. The Nano Tag is expected to sell for US$5 whereas longer lasting generic tags with similar tracking performance are expected to cost around US$20 and active RFID at least US$25.

Another solution to high tag volume systems are passive and battery-less designs. Atmosic’s ATM3201 and ATM3221 chips power themselves by harvesting energy from ambient radio frequency (RF) signals. The innovative design earned the M3 SoC an innovation award at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) 2020, with products released in Q2 of 2021 for remote controls, keyboards, and Bluetooth LE beacons. A similar energy harvesting solution is also available for Ultra-Wideband (UWB), produced by UWINLOC; the system boasts the superior sub-meter accuracy and interference resistance associated with UWB. Energy harvesting tags drastically reduce cost per tag by eliminating the component costs of the batteries themselves, as the battery-less designs can achieve this due to hardware engineered to be exceptionally power-efficient, although there is doubt about the reliability of energy harvesting. Passive RFID tags are available on the market for as little as ten cents, so orders of magnitude are cheaper than any active device, as well as being much smaller, typically just a paper sticker. To support the tags, passive RFID readers typically use much more power and operate over a shorter range, for asset tracking: fixed RFID readers placed at chokepoints can sometimes be a viable option, supplemented by handheld readers at the cost of precision compared to Bluetooth LE and UWB. Solutions based on the RAIN RFID standard, suitable for RTLS, are available and are typically advertised for logistics and asset tracking, as high levels of Radio Frequency (RF) energy are unsuitable to hospitals and public venues.

Understanding of Both Technology and Market is Required


Compelling product releases are the result of advancements across the Bluetooth LE RTLS ecosystem. Improvements in the power efficiency of Bluetooth LE devices from both the Bluetooth 5.0 specification, ARM processor design, and battery chemistry show that there is room for more interesting tag designs in terms of power efficiency, accuracy, range, and broadcasting frequency. Ultimately, this is not the sole responsibility of solution providers and instead requires the cooperation of companies in the supply chain who would benefit from identifying the needs of end users. For tags, this is especially important for Bluetooth LE systems, which ABI Research forecasts to reach over 300 million annual unit shipments by 2025 (from Indoor Positioning and RTLS: Technology Infrastructure, Applications, and Revenue (MD-RTLS-103)). Reducing the costs of hardware helps reduce the barrier to adoption, reducing Return on Investment (ROI) times and, in the case of disposable tags, reducing the cost of operation.

In a space where increased standardization and collaboration is emerging, use-case specific tags as part of a larger ecosystem are just one way a solution provider can offer a unique service within the RTLS market. As of January 2021, Kontakt.io tags are compatible with Cisco wireless access points, which support Bluetooth LE and are also certified for operation within Quuppa’s software ecosystem, with tags in the form of cards, key fobs, adhesives, and screw-ables from a selection of different partners. More broadly, there should be consideration towards not simply advancing technology but how said advancing technology can be aimed towards the needs of market verticals. Integration with wireless access points and smart lighting, hybrid solutions, meaningful analytics, and support for additional environmental sensors are all compelling selling points for an RTLS system and efforts to improve the accessibility of RTLS benefits the industry as a whole.